A Wealth of Water Fun

Recreation, Therapeutic Activities Enhance Aquatic Programs

By Deborah L. Vence

Whether the activity involves swim lessons, water aerobics or lap swim, aquatic programming is a great way for people of all ages to improve their cardiovascular health, strength, endurance and even flexibility. Not only that, aquatic programs can help in getting more people to frequent aquatic facilities. In fact, many aquatic facilities today offer a variety of aquatic programs, with some of the top ones being leisure swim, learn-to-swim for children, lap swim, aquatic exercise programs and water safety programs.

Get Creative

Some good creative programming ideas to attract more people to the pool include programs for "older people or people with special needs," said Ruth Sova, president of the Aquatic Therapy & Rehab Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that is dedicated to the professional development of healthcare professionals involved with aquatic therapy in Naples, Fla.

"The 65-plus age range is the biggest population group in the U.S. and will continue to be for quite a few years," Sova said. "So I suggest vertical programs (they don't like to get their hair wet, or take their hearing aids out or glasses off). BackHab is a walking program (not just for back issues) that builds functional skills with varied strides and progressions. It can be done in groups or one-on-one, with a teacher or alone."

The concept behind BackHab involves coordinating all body parts while fixing problem areas. It is a walking program that uses various strides to deliver different benefits, such as mobility, coordination, balance, strength and endurance, and it can be done in either shallow or deep water, as well as in groups or one-on-one.

Ai Chi is "a program used a lot in the therapeutic community for pain reduction, stress reduction and balance improvements," Sova said. Ai Chi involves a combination of deep breathing and slow broad movements that use concepts of Tai Chi, Shiatsu and Qigong. The technique was created by Jun Konno of Yokohama, Japan. Some of the benefits of the program include flexibility, range of motion and general mobility. It also helps increase blood circulation and mental alertness, as well as decrease stress. When doing the activity, the water depth should be at shoulder level.

"It's also easy to learn like BackHab, so [it] can be done in groups or one-on-one and with a leader or alone," Sova said, adding that "AquaStretch is another program that is good for pain that people can do either one-on-one or alone. The Aquatic Therapy & Rehab Institute can direct you to training venues, people or videos."

Developed by George Eversaul APH, AquaStretch is a method used in wellness and as a specific aquatic therapy technique. Some of the benefits of this exercise method include relieving pain and muscle soreness, restoring flexibility, and contributing to relaxation and improved sleep. The technique requires that the therapist progress a client through a series of starting positions and hand-grips, while encouraging movement. By applying a basic procedure to specific areas of tightness or pain, the facilitator works with the client to restore motion. The technique can be done one-on-one in 3 to 5 feet of water, and uses 5- to 15-pound ankle weights for the client, a weight belt for the therapist and a neck collar for the client, when needed.

Referring mostly to municipal and collegiate operations when asked about creative programs, Darin Barr, senior associate at Ballard*King & Associates, a recreation consulting firm in Highlands Ranch, Colo., that specializes in recreation and sports feasibility studies, parks and recreation master plans, as well as operational audits and assessments, said "that it isn't necessarily 'programming,' creative or otherwise, that is going to get more people to the pool."

Many clients that Barr's company has worked with across the country "have looked at patron counts and determined when they have 'slow' times during their operation," he said. "Once those times have been identified, some have added programs, while others have worked to focus special events at that time or introduce a new fun element."

As an example, he noted that "A new, or fun, element could be introducing an inflatable play structure, having stand-up paddle boards available or the like. If it isn't something that participants can do every day, it will drive attendance. In other words, access makes it special. A special event can be an egg hunt, or a dive-in movie, or a theme day," he said.

What's more, "Many newer facilities are trying to incorporate a competitive element to help drive attendance," Barr added. "There are companies developing ninja-warrior-like systems that retract from the ceiling that can be used at various times." And, "Some clients are considering a timing system for slides so that the fastest time is posted at the bottom of the slide, and resets every day (digitally, not manually), which encourages friendly competition."

Mark N. Abdo, recreation program supervisor and community outreach liaison for the city of Largo in Florida, said that "First of all, it appears based on my travels and conferences that aquatic professionals are not challenged in programming. They consider swim lessons, water exercise, fitness swimming (lap) and competitive aquatic teams as their programming. Though they are programs, they are the staples of any aquatic facility. What makes mine different from yours in attracting the customer interested in aquatic recreation? I call this the tie-breaker and facilitated a recent session under this title at the February Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP) national aquatic conference in Frisco, Texas.

"In my opinion, creative aquatic programs need to support the mission of the department and specifically focus on a particular age group and/or theme," he said. "As John Spannuth, founder of the United States Water Fitness Association (USWFA), asks often, 'Why do aquatic programmers plan for 5 percent use instead of 95 percent use?'"

Design Influence

When it comes to design influencing aquatic programming, Barr said "the design of a pool has a profound impact."

He said that "Varying depths of water, multiple water temperatures (typically with multiple pools), sight lines, flat water vs. active water and ability for social interaction during a program can all have an impact on not only the types of programs, but who will attend. In addition to the design of the pool proper, locker room facilities, changing rooms, deck space, lighting and the ability for public to view participants while they are in programs can all impact who attends programs."

Meanwhile, Sova noted that "Pools that start at 4 feet are often difficult to use for vertical exercise. Deep water exercise in [a] vertical position using flotation equipment can work well to offset that issue."

Abdo added that "According to Joe Calloway in his book, 'Becoming a Category of One,' our goal should be to create such a clean break from your competition that your customer and potential customers believe that there is no comparison between you and the other guys. I believe [the] Largo Recreation, Parks and Arts Department does this, and other aquatic professionals can accomplish this through mission, consistency, facility, attitude of staff, community partnerships and controlled risk."

He also noted that "Aquatic facilities have shifted from the rectangular 50-meter and Junior Olympic L-shape pools to becoming aquatic entertainment venues with free forms, deep water, shallow water, themed elements, bright colors, play features, all size slides, therapeutic pools, separate filtration and heating levels, bulkheads, etc.

"The excitement of the facility through color, shape, various depths and play amenities does make a difference. Within the facility design, swim lessons, water exercise classes, fitness swimming and competitive teams need to be considered unless there are other locations," he said. And, "An important element to any aquatic facility design is to make sure the aquatic professional is involved from the beginning."

Arash Izadi, director of sport and recreation at LPA, a Southern California-based architecture and design firm, added that in the past year there have been "more proposals for aquatic centers than any other sports facilities."

And, "Many of them were originally built in the 1970s and '80s, and for many institutions the time has come to decide between squeezing a little more life out of the existing facility or starting from scratch," adding that the question that needs to be asked is "Does that facility still meet the needs of the community? Just because you have a lot of water, it doesn't mean it does what you need it to do.

"The key," he added, "is to forget all preconceptions and engage the community. Through that community and stakeholder outreach, we can develop priorities and actual programmatic needs. We let the program dictate the bodies of water and their forms and shapes."

Creative Approaches to Lessons

In regard to more resourceful approaches to swim lessons, "One thing that we are seeing a lot of across the country is the development of stand-alone swim schools," Barr said.

"The swim school model typically focuses on all levels of swimming and aquatic participation: group swim lessons, private swim lessons, group exercise, stroke refinement, triathlon training, etc. Two big differences in that business are the instructor-to-student ratio and the consistency of instruction," he said.


Some things that his company tries to encourage the client to consider are the following:

  • "Adding a theme to your swim lessons. This is typically easier on a college or university campus, but adding a theme beyond the common level 1, 2, etc., can be attractive to some participants," he said.
  • "Adding levels that aren't necessarily prescribed should be encouraged. If you have a good group lesson program, and you find that the number of 'older' kids unwilling to leave a parent/guardian is significant, add a class for that age group that includes the parent/guardian," he said. "It sounds silly, but it's like a toddler class for older kids, and the only focus of that class should be that by the end of the class they are willing to leave their adult and move into your group lesson program."
  • "I don't think that anyone has the best answer for the question, what swim lessons should you offer at what time? However, a method that has been successful is large group blocks of time. In this model you have a class at a specific day and time, let's choose 6:00 p.m. that meets on Monday and Wednesday. The class runs for approximately 35 minutes. During that time participants that are level 1, 2 or 3 can attend, and you have 30 spaces available. This allows parents with kids in multiple levels to potentially bring them at the same time. As the operator, your focus is on getting 30 kids to sign up and having six instructors available, and you shouldn't really care of the distribution of levels," he added. "The trick is the first day of class. It's very hectic because you get everyone at the edge of the pool and test them very quickly and break them into groups. If you have 30 kids sign up, you may have two that are Level 1, 10 that are Level 2 broken into two classes and 18 that are Level 3 broken into three more classes. The point is that you have flexibility, you accommodate schedules, and don't necessarily have to combine skills levels (Level 1 and 2 together) to fill a class and meet your minimums. The biggest complaint with a system like this is the first day, it's hectic, but the product is worth it."

Abdo suggested using "the first night to water test kids and create the classes that are needed, not fit kids into pre-established swim lesson categories."

Also, he recommended allowing "parents in the water during class with students who experience comfort issues, fear, continued discipline problem or disability. Take time to communicate with parents the first night of class with written and oral description, expectations, weather, safety, evaluations, availability, etc."

Popular Programs

Among the more well-liked aquatic programs today, "Swim lessons remain popular," Barr said, "although it's an area where the industry has been relatively static.

"The biggest change seems to come from the introduction of swim schools," he said. "Keeping all of this in mind, most pool operations have greater demand for private and semi-private lessons than they can accommodate."


What's more, "Group exercise continues to gain in popularity," Barr added. "It seems that any group exercise program that can be done out of water is moving into the water, as long as your facility can accommodate it. A challenge with moving the group exercise programs into the water is finding instructors. In many cases, those that teach 'dry' programs aren't as willing to teach the 'wet' programs. A common solution we've seen is taking good swim lesson instructors and making them group exercise instructors."

In addition, he said, "Personal training continues to be baffling. The water seems like a natural fit if you are in a full-service facility that provides personal training. However, it seems like there is hesitancy of some personal trainers to incorporate water.

"Many times, and it is dependent on the facility, drop-in recreational use of the facility is very popular. Often aquatic operations are so focused on minimizing or eliminating subsidy that they forget drop-in use of the facility is a program in itself," he added.

Other popular programs include those like Ai Chi, which Sova said is "growing rapidly" in popularity "because of the mix of medically clinical progressions with energy flow. Vertical aquatic exercise programs are growing because of the research of the benefits of the water along with the reluctance of full immersion."

Similarly, Abdo noted that popular aquatic programs include aquatic therapy. "The need is huge and brings strong revenues," he said, adding that aquatic exercise with equipment, such as aqua bikes, boards, steps, etc., also are popular, along with deep-water aquatic programs (while wearing belts, easy on the body) and a full body workout, themed community events, cross-training for multi-sport athletes, preschool, and mermaid classes and events.

Program Challenges

Sometimes challenges can arise in establishing aquatic programs, including three that Barr noted.

"The first is staffing," he said. "Finding the right instructors for the right programs is a challenge, and staffing of an aquatic center in general, is challenging. Lifeguards aren't necessarily good swim lesson instructors and vice versa.

"The second is not having a focused approach," he said. "Many clients try and do everything, and in taking that approach don't do any of it well. The third is not recognizing the limitations of your own facility. For instance, if you have three 25-yard lap lanes incorporated into your leisure pool and your pool is already busy, there's a strong possibility you can't support a swim team."

In addition, "Crowding the pool during already busy times" can be another challenge. "That can be offset by offering programs for older people who no longer have to work regular schedules," Sova said.

Abdo noted a few more challenges: "Lack of creativity and/or budget; unwillingness for staff to find a business partner or sponsor; lack of support from department administration; not willing to take a risk; staff not held to revenue standards so offer the same old, worn out programs … no need for creativity; lack of other aquatic competition in the area," he said.



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